Mill Hollow Partners Plan for Sustainability

2/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Sara Miller Reporter

EDGEMONT, Pa. — Ever since Jeff and Deb Warden bought 23 acres of land in Edgemont, Delaware County, Pa., about 12 years ago, they’ve wanted to put it to good use. They also desired to learn about farming and healthful living.

Unbeknownst to them, Josh Taylor, from New Brunswick, Canada, was already familiar with farming, and was also inspired by the benefits of a holistic lifestyle. And, after relocating to the greater Philadelphia area a few years ago with his wife, Kate, Taylor needed to find his niche.

Working as an urban farm consultant for some farms in Philadelphia, Taylor’s networking efforts paid off when he connected with the Wardens at the 2012 Pennsylvania Farm Show.

“It’s been a pilot year,” Taylor said of this past year, his first year working for the Wardens as the farm manager of Mill Hollow Farm.

The Wardens’ house, built circa 1808, was built to be a lumber mill, then a grist mill and, eventually, a cotton mill. Now, it serves a new purpose — farmhouse and office.

A great amount of Taylor’s work has been focused on preparing the land for future planting and harvesting, he said.

But, the farm enjoyed a fairly successful market season this year, he said, as customers could choose from an ample variety of herbs, wheatgrass, sprouts, seeds, nuts, fruits and root crops.

Marketing one of the farm’s products, tea, has been a primary focus, Taylor said. The tea’s brand, “Seven Streams,” is named after the farm’s water source, an arterial landscape of four small streams feeding into one large stream, plus two metaphorical streams — Mill Hollow Farm’s goals of physical well-being and metaphysical wellness and health, he explained.

“Teas and herbs, herbal medicines, wild medicines, healing the land — all those things are sort of within that focus,” Taylor said.

And, with three of the farm’s streams being spring-fed and the terrain surrounded by conservation land — complete with Taylor’s background and studies in anthropology, natural medicine and land management — Mill Hollow Farm’s goals are well within reach.

As the farm grows, Taylor would like to utilize the streams’ resources for hydroponics, a sustainable process in which aquaculture and plants are intertwined and mutually benefit from one another. Edible watercress already grows wild by the stream. He also hopes to introduce more medicinal herb and seed varieties and wild rice to the bounty of rare and native species they have already started cultivating.

“Mill Hollow Farm is a combination of commercial farming, land management and seed saving,” Taylor said, pointing out that one possibility is for a part of the farm to have a nonprofit seed-saving organization.

For now, though, as Taylor and the Wardens concentrate on tea production, in addition to growing herbs, they can use what the land already provides. Pine needles from a cluster of 10-year-old spruce trees can be mixed into tea ingredients for flavor. An existing pawpaw tree can contribute a tropical fruit-like flavor.

They also use American ginseng, rosemary, thyme and peppermint, among about 50 herb varieties in the tea.

Heritage Seeds

“I want to focus (on) the fields more this year,” Taylor said. He has divided the fields into thirds: one third is for homestead crops to grow the Wardens’ and Taylors’ choices of produce; another third for market crops; and a third for unique Native American and hybrid seed varieties produced by their neighbor and part-time employee, renowned food historian and seed researcher and developer, William Woyes Weaver.

Mill Hollow Farm is currently the only seed holder for one of Weaver’s two identified Native American corn varieties, Tutello Strawberry corn. That’s changing, though, Taylor said, as these seeds sell at their farmers market. Slightly smaller than corn grown in most fields, and reddish in color, this corn is grown for cornmeal.

Weaver’s other Native American corn species, also harvested for milling, is called Pu-Whem. This variety is significantly larger than traditional corn, with thick stalks and 14-inch cobs.

Some of Weaver’s other seeds found on the farm are three varieties of raspberries, which were popular at market last summer. He has also created a cross between Green Glaze collards and Red Russian kale, which he named Rough Wood collards, after Weaver’s farmstead. The winter-hardy Rough Wood collards are among the few plants surviving the cold this winter, according to Taylor.

Working with the Ecology

Currently, a mixture of winter rye, red clover and alfalfa covers the ground, and is part of Taylor’s plan to nurse the nutrient-deficient soil back to health. Bacteria, he explained, form pockets in the roots of these crops, bringing carbon and nitrogen into the soil.

“We had the worst pest year last summer,” Taylor said, describing how the previous mild winter had failed to get cold enough to kill many insect species, so they continued to spread. The other issue, he said, was the farm’s serpentine soil, which lacks calcium.

To combat this, Taylor is feeding the soil an organic liquid calcium supplement. He also plans to grow nettle, a calcium-rich diuretic plant that can be boiled and eaten to cleanse the body of toxins, or used as a medicine.

He explained how herbs are ideal to grow in the existing soil conditions because they don’t require as much calcium and are less susceptible to pests. Herbs also prefer the drainage that the rolling landscape provides.

“Why fight ecology when you can work with it?” he said.

To prepare the pastures, Taylor tapped into a technique he learned at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference last year. The Wardens bought six crossbred Tamworth and Old Spot piglets along with two lambs — to help cultivate the land. Taylor said the animals are loosening the soil while grazing on planted cover crops like buckwheat, sorghum and clover and then digesting and putting the nutrients back into the soil.

The pigs’ diet is also supplemented with wheat grass that Taylor grows in a small, enclosed building called the fodder tech.

“It’s a self-contained, hydroponic sprouting system,” Taylor said.

The pigs are rotated in paddocks in the fields for five to eight days at a time, then moved into the woods to uproot dense bushes and trees for future planting areas. Part-time summer hired helpers took it from there, removing invasive weeds from the woods.

“This spring, we’re looking at planting usable, native species in these woods, to create a groundcover to keep the invasives from coming back,” Taylor said. Some examples he pointed to included spice bush and elderberries, which he said are great in teas. Spice bush, he explained, is an ancient tea substitute, comparable to allspice.

Taylor is also in the process of removing invasive weeds from another wooded area, where he hopes to plant nursery beds.

“In seven years, depending on germination ... we can (then) harvest the roots and replant (them) into other areas for the long-term,” he said.

Along part of the stream, Taylor has weeded thousands of wild garlic mustard plants to make room for more useful plants.

“(These mustard plants) are really invasive and allopathic, so they add things to the soil that prevent other plants from growing there. So, they’re really nasty weeds to have around,” he said.

Another project is a hoop house. The Wardens had been using the hoop house to grow tomatoes, which attracted wildlife pests and depleted the soil. To improve this soil, Taylor has been treating the soil weekly with liquid kelp and mixed organic fertilizer. He has carpeted the ground with winter rye, mixed with sorghum, clover and alfalfa, to add nutrients.

A sprinkler system, along with water-saving drip irrigation installed throughout the farm, is used for moisture in the hoop house.

“(The hoop house) will first be used for propagation and seed starts,” he said. Less cold-resistant plants, such as lemon grass, lemon verbena and Weaver’s mastic thyme take refuge there, he said, noting he plans to add heating mats.

Taylor pointed out that the tables holding tools in the hoop house were constructed by what he referred to as the salvage approach — scavenging for scraps like metal and wood from nearby vendors and farms, to save money.

Another cost-efficient practice Taylor described was how he learned to store root vegetables when he lived in Canada. Rather than investing in a root cellar, he stores them in the ground over the winter. No pests live in the frozen soil, which also protects the roots from the elements. An added benefit, he said, is that the cold temperature converts carbohydrates into sugar, giving the vegetables a sweeter taste.

“We learned a huge amount this year,” Taylor said. “At first, I didn’t think there was any way we could be profitable.”

But, he said, they don’t expect to make a lot of money. Rather, in harmony with the Wardens’ initial vision, their success is measured in supporting the farming expenses, taking care of their employees and loyal customers, and promoting health and the environment.

“It’s pretty exciting, both being involved in working with some really rare varieties and saving them and getting them out there, and then creating new varieties — also, just being able to eat delicious food from it,” Taylor said.

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